College Football: Notre Dame & Independents Preview
Heading into 2007, many had an idea that Notre Dame would suffer a drop in the win column. After all, it’s not everyday when you have to replace a quarterback the caliber of Brady Quinn, along with many other key contributors. But to finish with a record of 3-9 was something that anyone not named Mark May was stunned by. The problems: an offense that had a hard time scoring points and a defense that lacked depth and speed. Experience and a solid recruiting class should solve the former, and the hiring of former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will help immensely with the latter. If you’re not too familiar with Coach Tenuta, expect to see the Irish blitz much more this season.
As for the offense, QB Jimmy Clausen has a year under his belt and is one of nine starters returning, which should help the production of the Notre Dame offense. Add to that a schedule that is a bit more manageable, meaning that the negative momentum that started in a shutout loss to Georgia Tech and snowballed until the Irish were 0-5 shouldn’t be an issue this year. Expect Notre Dame to win seven games this season, maybe even eight.
Navy played a role in the demise of Notre Dame last season, ending a forty-four game losing streak in the series. But head coach Paul Johnson moved on to see if he could lead Georgia Tech to the top of the ACC, leaving the reins to former offensive coordinator Ken Niumatalolo. But only thirteen starters are back, most notably quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and all four members of the secondary. They’ve got some tough games on the schedule, with trips to Wake Forest and Air Force to go along with hosting Pitt and Rutgers, but they should be bowl eligible once again. And with the new Congressional Bowl in their backyard, six wins should be enough to ensure a thirteenth game.
The other two independents may end up sitting out the bowl season, but for contrasting reasons. Head coach Stan Brock is taking Army back in time in hopes of at least ending their six-game losing streak to rival Navy. After trying to stick with the previous regime’s pro-style offense, the Black Knights will go to the spread option, a system that’s seemingly been a staple of the service academies for years. Hopefully the change will bring about an improvement in their offensive numbers, as Army ranked 116th in total offense last season. Linebackers Frank Scappaticci and John Plumstead look to lead a defense that spent far too much time on the field in 2007, resulting in a ranking of 89th in total defense.
Lastly, Western Kentucky completes its final season as an independent before joining the Sun Belt next year. Quarterbacks K.J. Black and David Wolke will look to navigate a much tougher schedule this season after helping lead the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record last season. It’s also important to note that six of WKU’s seven wins came against opponents from the NAIA and Football Championship Subdivision. This season’s schedule features just two FCS opponents (Eastern Kentucky and Murray State) and five games against future conference rivals. WKU will also visit Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia Tech. Six starters, led by end Dan Cline and linebacker Alonso Higgins return on defense, but the Hilltoppers will face many challenges in their quest to notch the school’s thirteenth consecutive winning season.
Five Best Games
1. Army vs. Navy (in Philadelphia, December 6th): Other games may provide more star power, but this is one of the nation’s best rivalries. It would help if Army were more competitive, however.
2. Notre Dame @ Michigan State (September 20th): The last time these two met in East Lansing the Irish pulled off a comeback for the ages. State won last season’s meeting 31-14, a departure from the nailbiters in recent years.
3. Michigan @ Notre Dame (September 13th): With Michigan installing a new offensive system, Notre Dame could head into this one as the favorite. And after last year’s embarrassing showing in Ann Arbor, payback could be the order of the day.
4. Florida Atlantic @ Western Kentucky (October 18th): In getting prepared for the Sun Belt, the Hilltoppers host the favorite to win their second consecutive Sun Belt title.
5. Navy @ Air Force (October 4th): This game in recent years has been the one that decides the winner of the Commander in Chief’s Trophy with Army struggling of late.